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A life dealing with death for a living; NEWCASTLE Medical School depends on body donations to educate its students. FRANCESCA CRAGGS meets the woman hanging up her lab coat after 30 years caring for the region's donors and their families.


THE death of a loved one is always traumatic.

Yet some families in the region find comfort in knowing the passing of their relatives hasn't been in vain. By donating their bodies to Newcastle Medical School, they are helping to develop the skills and shape the careers of our future doctors, dentists, and surgeons.

As many as 66 human bodies are donated to the university each year and technical manager Christine Harkness has been caring for them and their families for over three decades.

The 65-year-old from Whickham, Gateshead, has provided technical support, including the embalming and specialised dissection of cadavers, as well as the training and supervision of others in the Anatomy and Clinical Skills unit, for the past 33 years.

Set to hang up her lab coat next month, Christine is proud of her somewhat unusual medical school career. Much of this, she says, is down to the "wonderful" people she has met and helped over the years.

"The people in the North East are extremely generous, and a lot of people want to donate their bodies to medical education."

The medical school saw a sharp rise in the number of bodies donated after the BBC's The One Show made a programme on the subject. And, with a surgical training site at the Freeman Hospital, which also uses bodies donated to the school, it is now able to accept more donors than ever.

According to Christine, the job requires both sensitivity and practicality: "It's a very sensitive issue. You really need to be practical with people and help them through what they have to do but, at the same time, be empathetic.

"Some people are quite matter of fact and deal with it quite well, while other people are extremely distressed. Some people need a lot of time, other people just need the facts and get on with it."

Each body stays at the school for a maximum of three years, before being released for cremation or burial. The university liaises with undertakers to ensure minimum stress for the families, and holds a thanksgiving service each year for families to attend.

Christine works hard to ensure each body is treated with the upmost respect and dignity. She said: "There was one gentlemen whose mother had come to us, and he was very poorly and didn't expect to live long enough to see his mum's cremation. He sent some money into the department and asked if we would get some flowers to send out with her, which we gladly did.

"We have one or two little keepsakes from families. When the donor goes out, the keepsakes will go with them. Occasionally, we get people in and they'll have a flower with them. I'll put the flower in water and keep it with the person as long as I can. I don't know whether it makes any difference, but it makes a difference to me."

Rejecting a body that's not suitable for training, is often the hardest part of the job.

Christine said: "When you have to tell somebody that you can't honour the bequest of the family, they get really very upset. Sometimes the person has to have a post-mortem examination so we can't accept them, and sometimes there is just a problem with the condition of the body and it's for practical reasons.

"For most families it's distressing.

For some families it is a relief as it's not something they really wanted to do."

Despite over 30 years on the job, Christine is still touched at times.

"You do sometimes get upset. When I first started here, I hadn't had anything much to do with death. When I first started, I got extremely anxious about it because I didn't know how I was going to react. But, actually, there are certain things you have to do, there are processes you have to go through with the preserving of the body - the practical side of your brain takes over."

Christine is looking forward to spending more time with husband Walter, 64, and her two sons Duncan, 36, and Iain, 37, and is keen to pursue some new interests: "I'm a member of the WI and I've been on committee for a lot of years now. Some of the members attend a local school once a fortnight to hear the children read and I would like to do something like that.

"I love animals, too, and would like to do some work with Brysons Animal Refuge in Wrekenton. I also love my holidays and Walter and I sponsored a boy in Goa while on holiday. He was taken in by El Shaddai, a wonderful charity. He now works for the charity, so we sponsor another child. It's been very rewarding."

As well as looking forward to the future, she will miss the job dearly.

"What I love about the job is that every day is different. I've worked with some lovely people over the years and seen medical students return years later as teaching consultants. It's going to be a wrench, but everything has it's time. I've worked with some fantastic people and like to thank them for their support and help over the years.

"It's been a great pleasure for me to be able to help people through what is the most appalling time of their life. I'm extremely proud to have worked here, and extremely proud to be a Geordie!" DO YOU WANT TO DONATE? People who might be interested in bequesting their body to Newcastle Medical School can contact Linda Dudley, bequeathal secretary, at Newcastle University.

Call 0191 222 6616 for more information..


KICKER Newcastle University Medical School Technical Manager Christine Harkness who is to retire
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 5, 2011
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